I remember back in my childhood (late 60’s to early 70’s), getting warnings from my grandmother “Don’t sit so close to the T.V.” or “Don’t stand in front of the microwave.” Today, we get warnings about excessive cell phone usage and brain cancer, as well as the big “sun exposure”. These things all have the same concern in common, radiation exposure. While there are things that are assumed that can happed due to exposure, there are still many things unknown.
Then of course, there was the core problem at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant about an hour from my house. A movie titled “The China Syndrome” chronicled a potential nuclear disaster. Our world would experience just how serious nuclear crisis at power plants could be with Chernobyl and Japan. And of course, there is the potential an previous use in warfare.
But under a controlled situation, it was learned that certain cancers could be cured, in particular, the cancer that I am now 28 years in remission from, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And today, the dosages of radiation are much less, and more precise than what I, and many, many more were treated with.
This is a picture of a linear accelerator. Not the one that was used on me thirty years ago, but similar. With pinpoint precision, this machine shoots the ionized radiation to the specific tumor or cancer site.
To really appreciate how far treatment with radiation for cancer has come, I will refer you to treatment with Cobalt, something I have only heard of, from fellow survivors who were treated in the decades before my more modern treatments.
I was treated with the linear accelerator, however, unlike the fine-tuned procedure, I was treated with “scattered field.” So, what does this mean? Once the radiation entered my body, it scattered beyond the areas meant to be treated. As I mentioned, radiation treatment was not just about the method, but also the dosage.
The comic superhero “Incredible Hulk” was created when Dr. Banner was working on a treatment with radiation. He made the decision to test the process on himself, which of course went wrong, and as a result, the side effect, whenever he got angry, a metamorphosis occurred in his blood, changing his appearance and physiology to a creature of super human strength. The problem was, Dr. Banner could not control or reverse what had been done to him.
In February of 1989, I laid on the table in the room with the linear accelerator. On my first day, I laid down on the table. “Tatoo” markers noted the spot to line up the cross hairs of the machine. Lead blocks had been placed over my breast bone to protect my heart and spine. In all, I would go through thirty of these treatments, lasting about a minute in duration. Except, that did not happen. The machine malfunctioned with me on the table. I could not help but wonder if I was going to make the transformation into a giant, strong, green, super hero. I was not given much time to think about that, because with the machine repaired, the treatment commenced.
Side effects for my treatments, were minimal, potential for pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart), and perhaps a secondary cancer. Truth is, long term studies were never done. And with many Hodgkin’s survivors living beyond the magical five year mark, many would develop side effects that would end up teaching medicine, there was more that needed to be learned. And in 2008, I would join the other guinea pigs in the research of long term side effects from treatments of cancer.
This is a picture of my death, or what should have been. Radiation that I had received twenty years before, had remained inside my body, continuing to do damage internally. My particular condition is called a “widow maker.” Radiation scarring to the left anterior descending artery was about to be the cause of a fatal heart attack. And without being followed up for my heart, something that was never a concern, I should be dead.
Instead, I am now followed up by some of the top doctors in the country for this cumulative damage from both radiation and chemotherapy long term effects. And my body is riddled with these issues with more than a dozen other diagnosis.
But before this new health surveillance began, my doctors needed as much information as they could get about what, and how much I was treated with. For the purposes of this post, I am going to just deal with the radiation. It was revealed that I was exposed to 4000 grays of ionized radiation over the course of my treatment. What does this mean to the average person without knowledge of radiation? The limit of exposure today in general, are approximately 100 grays per year. PER YEAR!!! That means that I was exposed to 40 years worth of radiation in a 30-day period, well beyond a life-time limit.
To put this in perspective, I have two conversations to share. The first, was with a friend who happened to work at a nuclear power plant who was curious about my exposure to radiation therapy. By the end of the conversation, he was in tears when he heard about the level I was treated with. Neither he, nor anyone who works in the nuclear industry is really ever to be exposed to the 100 grays per year exposure. He knew, and I knew from his expression, this was something quite serious.
The other story, occurred during radiation training while working for my former employer. We were required to take this training every year. At the end of the session, the instructor would open the floor for questions. I have to admit, I already knew my answer to my question, but as many around me doubt the seriousness of my side effects, there was a shock value to bringing my exposure limits public. My question pertained to “half life” of radiation, simply put, how long radiation lasts inside of your body after exposure. It amounts to the time it takes for half of the radiation to be gone. Needless to say, the half life of exposure to a dental or medical x-ray pales in comparison to the radiation I was exposed to. But I wanted to ask the question.
Me: Hypothetically (I was being nice), what would be the half life of being exposed to 4000 grays of ionized radiation?
Instructor: That would be impossible.
Me: I know, but that is why I am asking hypothetically.
Instructor: That would be impossible. No one would ever be exposed to that level.
Me.: But I was, twenty years ago.
Instructor: awkward and heartbreaking silence
Yeah, I knew from his reaction, I am going to be dealing with this the rest of my life. I have other radiation damage that will one day need attention, once it becomes more of a risk than the surgery to correct it: mitral and aortic valves, both carotid arteries, muscle and bone damage, lung damage including spots on my lung, currently unidentified but being watched to develop into lung cancer.
It is for this reason, many of my fellow long-termers and I call radiation “the gift that keeps on giving.” I just wish I could save someone with the radiation modification of my body like a super hero. And no, I do not interfere with televisions, microwaves, radios, or garage doors.